Basil dishes up classic Italian flavor in eye-catching bushy plants suitable for garden beds or containers. Grow this tasty beauty in a sunny spot, and you'll reap rewards of flavorful foliage in shades of green, purple, or bronze. Basil lends a distinctive taste to salads, pizza, and pasta dishes. Use small leaves whole; chop larger leaves. Add leaves to dishes just before serving for the best flavor and aroma. Basil plants are sensitive to cold; start seeds indoors or plant outside after all danger of frost has passed.
An exceptionally easy-to-grow herb, basil produces tasty foliage from early summer through fall. Grow basil in containers right outside your back door for garden-fresh flavor within steps of the kitchen. You can even grow basil in winter months. Just place it in a bright, sunny window and water regularly.
You'll see many kinds of basil in the herb section of large garden centers and nurseries. Flavors and types include the classic pesto-favorite Genovese basil, slightly spicy Cinnamon basil (also known as Mexican spice basil), and lemon basil with its light lemon fragrance. The size of basil plants also varies greatly. Petite Boxwood basil, which grows in a dense round shape, reaches just 6 to 12 inches tall. Siam Queen (commonly used in Thai cooking) is a bushy cultivar covered with flavor-rich leaves that stands 3 feet tall.
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Grow basil alongside other culinary herbs such as parsley, chives, oregano, thyme, cilantro, and dill for a bountiful collection of fresh fragrant foliage. A colorful group of containers stocked with basil and other herbs can turn any full-sun patio or balcony into a smorgasbord of flavor. Just make sure basil gets at least 6 hours of bright sunlight a day.
Seed a row of your favorite basil variety in the garden to ensure plenty of succulent leaves for making pesto or flavoring summer dishes. When planted near tomatoes, basil displays an ability to repel pests such as thrips (tiny winged insects) and tomato hornworms.
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Basil also feels right at home in a mixed border. This herb's green or purple foliage complements a host of annuals and perennials. Although basil's summer blooms are not desirable for cooking, they add interest to a landscape planting.
Basil Care Must-Knows
Basil grows best in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. It can tolerate part shade, but plants will not be as robust or bushy as those grown in full sun. Once established, basil will withstand dry conditions as long as it is watered regularly. In midsummer basil produces flowers that lead to woody stems and leaves with less-desirable flavor. Snip away flowering stems as soon as you spot them to promote new, tasty foliage.
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Basil is quick to germinate and easy to grow from seed. Start basil seed indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost or direct seed it in the garden after the last spring frost. Do not plant basil outside until the last chance of frost passes in your area.
Japanese beetles are basil's primary—and most destructive—pest. Non-chemical methods should be used to control these insects on food crops such as basil. Hand-pick Japanese beetles off basil plants in early evening and toss them into a container of soapy water where they will perish. Protect single or small basil plants by covering them with cheesecloth. The loosely woven fabric will allow light and water to pass through while stopping beetles from reaching the plants.
Start snipping as soon as plants unfurl at least four sets of leaves. Pick only as many individual leaves as you'll use. To store fresh basil for up to five days, clip sprigs and treat them like fresh cut flowers: place them in water at room temperature. Basil turns brown if stored in the refrigerator. When frost threatens, cut plants and plunge stems into a few inches of water in a clean bucket. To store leaves, dry, freeze, or hot pack in sterilized bottles with vinegar and olive oil. Or preserve basil flavor in pesto, which stores in the refrigerator up to one month and can be frozen for up to two years.
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More Varieties of Basil
'African Blue' is a hybrid variety of Ocimum that can grow up to 4 feet tall and wide. The young leaves have a purplish-blue cast but turn green when mature. Its flowers are pink, making it an attractive ornamental plant. It has a camphor scent and less desirable flavor than most culinary basils, but it can still be used in cooking.
This variety of Ocimum basilicum forms a neat, compact mound of tightly packed leaves that reaches up to a foot tall. Start harvesting the fine leaves when the plant reaches 6 inches in height. It is especially suited to growing in containers.
'Boxwood' is a hard-working variety that grows only 6 to 12 inches tall, but is big on flavor and makes an excellent edging plant in a bed near your kitchen door. Try growing this Ocimum basilicum in pots and window boxes.
'Cardinal' is named for its reddish-purple flower clusters that resemble celosia. This Ocimum basilicum also has attractive burgundy stems on plants that reach 24-30 inches tall. Harvest and use the green leaves as you would other culinary basils.
This type of Ocimum x citriodorum is a summer treat; there's nothing as refreshing a sprig of lemon basil. This easy-to-grow herb produces leaves with a light lemony fragrance and flavor. It grows 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide.
'Genovese' is perfect for fans of fresh pesto. This large-leaf Italian basil yields plentiful foliage packed with aromatic oils, ideal for true Neapolitan-style cooking. Ocimum 'Genovese' grows 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide.
Ocimum basilicum 'Cinnamon' is grown specifically for its tasty, cinnamon-flavor leaves. It grows 18 inches tall and wide and thrives in hot, sunny locations.
Ocimum x citriodorum is a tall, narrow variety that bears lemon-scented leaves. It grows 36 inches tall and 10 inches wide.
'Magical Michael' has a compact, well-branched growing habit, making it ideal for container culture. An All-America Selections winner, this Ocimum basilicum is prized for its bold white and purple flowers. It grows 15 inches tall and 12 inches wide.
A heat-loving heirloom Ocimum x citriodorum variety from New Mexico. It grows 18-24 inches tall and has an intense lemony fragrance and flavor. Grow it in herb gardens, vegetable gardens, or containers.
This variety of Ocimum basilicum is one of the best varieties for pesto. Also called Italian large-leaf basil, its large, fragrant leaves can be harvested all summer long. It's a productive variety that grows 2 feet tall and 18 inches wide.
'Osmin' offers glossy, deep purple leaves that give off a sweet, fruity aroma that lends pungent color to culinary creations. Tidy plants of this Ocimum grow 18 inches tall and 12 inches wide and thrive in pots.
This new variety of Ocimum basilicum lowers later in the season than other basil varieties. Since it's late-flowering, that means 'Pesto Party' produces loads of tasty leaves throughout summer without the need to remove flowering stems. It is a well-branched plant with sweet Italian basil flavor.
This award-winning selection has eye-catching wavy, purple leaves. Ocimum basilicum 'Purple Ruffles' is a tough annual that works well in pesto, salads, or garnishes. It grows 24 inches tall and 16 inches wide.
This variety of Ocimum dresses up garden-fresh dishes with purple-toned leaves. It grows about 2 feet tall and 14 inches wide, making it ideal for containers or garden beds.
'Serrata' is quite ornamental with its frilly leaves on compact plants that reach 12-16 inches tall. The foliage of this Ocimum basilicum makes great filler for flower arrangements. It is a Southeast Asian type with good basil flavor.
Ocimum is beautiful and bushy, soaring to 3 feet tall. Pick leaves or purple flowers to infuse stir-fry, oils, or salad with traditional Thai flavors.
'Spicy Bush' is a compact variety of Ocimum (12 inches tall and wide) with tiny leaves, making it an ideal plant for edging gardens or growing in containers.
'Pesto Perpetua' is a fragrant variety that produces bright green leaves edged in cream. This Ocimum x citriodorum grows 36 to 48 inches tall and 12 inches wide.
This Ocimum basilicum has a pronounced anise flavor and pretty reddish-purple stems on plants that grow 12-18 inches tall.
Garden Plans For Basil
Enjoy summer's finest flavors with this fun and easy garden plan. This arrangement offers tons of color and texture as well as variety in flavors.